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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Should bushes have stopped White House intruder?

Uniformed Secret Service officers walk along the lawn on the North side of the White House  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Uniformed Secret Service officers walk along the lawn on the North side of the White House
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Secret Service officers chasing a Texas Army veteran across the White House lawn in September figured they had him cornered when he encountered the thick bushes on the property.

To their surprise the bushes were no match for the fence-jumper, who dashed into the executive mansion through a pair of unlocked doors, knocking aside an officer physically too small to tackle him. She would then fumble with her own equipment as the man carrying a knife ran deep inside the president’s home, according to a Homeland Security review of the Sept. 19 incident.

The incident occurred shortly after 7 p.m., only minutes after President Barack Obama and his daughters, along with a guest of one of the girls, left the White House aboard Marine One on their way to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland where Obama and his family were to spend the weekend. First lady Michelle Obama had traveled separately to Camp David and was not at home.

The folly of errors and missteps by Secret Service officers were revealed in a nine-page summary of the government’s investigation of the break-in at the White House by a disturbed Army veteran.

The government determined that lack of training, poor staffing decisions and communication problems contributed to the embarrassing failure that ultimately led to the resignation of the head of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson. The report did not specify any disciplinary actions.

The new report said Omar Gonzalez, 42, cleared the fence where a trident, or ornamental spike, was missing. An officer in the joint operations center who tried to raise the alarm was unaware his warnings weren’t being broadcast to uniformed officers stationed at the executive mansion.

Some officers at a gate on Pennsylvania Avenue failed to see the fence-jumper because their view was obstructed by a construction project. A Secret Service canine officer parked on the White House driveway was using the speaker function on his personal cellphone without his radio ear piece, and a second, tactical radio was stashed away in his locker as the intruder made his way into the secure area.

Two officers wrongly assumed Gonzalez wouldn’t be able to get through thick bushes on the property, the report said. Another officer posted on the portico outside the wooden White House doors mistakenly assumed the doors were locked.

The intruder was able to run into the building before a female officer seated just inside could lock a second set of doors.

That officer tried twice to take Gonzalez down but was unable to because she was smaller than him. She reached for her metal baton but mistakenly grabbed a flashlight. As she dropped the light and drew her gun, the intruder made his way into the East Room before heading back down a hallway on the State Floor deep within the White House.

Gonzalez was eventually tackled by another officer, who was helped by two plainclothes agents just finishing a shift, the report said.

Investigators also said members of an emergency response team didn’t know the layout of the White House and hesitated to go into the mansion after the break-in.

Gonzalez has pleaded not guilty in federal court to charges of unlawfully entering a restricted building while carrying a deadly weapon, which is a federal charge, and two violations of District of Columbia law — carrying a dangerous weapon outside a home or business and unlawful possession of ammunition.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the Secret Service reported that Gonzalez was unarmed and apprehended just inside the building. But it disclosed more than a week later how far into the building Gonzalez actually went.

Acting Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy is expected to testify next week at an oversight hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.


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